The disappearances this month of five Pakistani social media activists have fuelled a rare public examination of the pervasive powers wielded by the country’s national security apparatus and the elected government’s inability to rein them in.

The five men were detained in Islamabad, the capital, and in and around the populous eastern city of Lahore between January 4 and 7, all by plain-clothed men riding pickup trucks.

No shots were fired during the detentions, nor any claims of responsibility made. The only communications were sent to family members from personal devices by abductors posing as abductees. The wife of respected leftist poet and blogger Salman Haider was instructed to collect his car from a highway junction on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Human rights groups were quick to draw a parallel between the disappearances of the activists and those of scores of people who regularly go missing from areas of Pakistan affected by two-decades-old insurgencies by the Taliban in northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and by separatists waging a low-intensity rebellion in the western province of Baluchistan.

Baluchistan is home to the port of Gwadar, the focal point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a US$51.5 billion investment programme that is part of President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) One Belt, One Road trade initiative to improve China’s connectivity with its neighbours.

By the end of 2014, the number of people missing and feared dead in the country rose to 5,149, according to Defence of Human Rights, a Pakistani non-governmental organisation.

The Twitter hashtag #RecoverSalmanHaider, started by his younger brother to spread the news of his disappearance, quickly trended as emotional activists blamed the national security apparatus for the disappearances of the five men.

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“This is the sensitive state. It is a sign of weakness that if anybody criticises their policies, all their Facebook pages have been shut down and deleted, and these people have been abducted,” said Jibran Nasir, a prominent human rights activist, in a television appearance.

Pakistanis active on social media were drawn to a poem written by Haider and published last July in Tanqeed (criticism), an e-zine he co-edits:

Right now the friends of my friends are being ‘disappeared’

Soon it will be my friends’ turn

And then mine …

When I become the file

That my father will bring to court hearings

Or the picture that my son will kiss when asked by a journalist

However, some are perplexed that the five social media activists have been singled out for abduction. “All are known for airing their views, sometimes critical of authority, extremism and intolerance, on social media,” noted the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. But none of them are considered controversial or renowned outside civil society. Haider’s poem on missing people had attracted only 158 likes on Tanqeed ’s Facebook page.

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Fearing that the disappearances might herald a wave of detentions under a new cybercrime law enacted last August, activists recanted their unsubstantiated accusations against the military or deleted them from social media accounts. Others deactivated or deleted their social media pages altogether.

Nonetheless, public concern over the suspected role of the security agencies continued to grow as Pakistanis backed activists’ calls, under the Twitter hashtag #RecoverAllActivists, for due legal process to be accorded to the missing activists if, in fact, they had been detained for violating the cybercrime law.

Pressure has built on Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, to fulfil promises to bring a halt to illegal detentions. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan has told members of the Senate, the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament, that “this government is not in the business of abducting people and we will not tolerate such disappearances while we are in power”.

However, the government’s inability to provide any information on the missing activists has fed perceptions that it does not want to antagonise the powerful military.

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“With the disappearance of Salman Haider and … [four] other activists, a dark new chapter in the state’s murky, illegal war against civil society appears to have been opened,” the country’s top English newspaper, Dawn, said in an editorial written in response to the interior minister’s comments. Haider blogs for the newspaper.

“Where once-missing persons belonged to the remote areas of the country … and mostly involved those accused of waging war against the Pakistani state, the tactic has now clearly been broadened to encompass anyone who is deemed an irritant to state policy – or the policies of a state within the state.”

Throughout the controversy, the military’s propaganda arm, the Inter Services Public Relations directorate, has offered no comment. Instead, popular pro-military social media pages have launched a campaign alleging that the missing activists were the administrators of a secular activist Facebook page named B hensa (buffalo), notorious for mocking the national security apparatus and religious extremists.

On that pretext, Cyber Force for Pakistan, a Facebook page liked by more 400,000 people, has accused the missing activists of being funded by India’s intelligence services. Similarly, Defence Pakistan, a pro-military page with more than 7 million followers, has equated content purportedly written for Bhensa by the missing activists as blasphemous.

In turn, that has prompted a wave of social media posts demanding that they be prosecuted for insulting the Prophet Mohammed, an offence punishable under law by the death sentence. In turn, rights activists have demanded the government prosecute the administrators of Defence Pakistan on charges of incitement to violence. “Attempts are being made to set our country on fire and to divide it,” said Nasir on social media. “For God’s sake, think
about what you are doing, repent, think about the future of this country.”